As it goes with most legends, there are dozens of unanswered questions about the life of this remarkable lady. Was she a spy, a part of the French Resistance, or just a talented cyclist, bike-shop owner, and a very imaginative story-teller? We cannot be sure, but let’s face it: myths are often much more appealing than plain facts.
There are many accounts of how the British-born Eveline Alice Alexandra Bayliss, later known as Evelyn Hamilton, found her way to cycling. Some say it was her husband John Hamilton, a cycling enthusiast, who introduced her to the perks of riding. Some say her cousin, a Tour-de-France winner, sparked Evelyn’s interest, but there is no record of who the cousin was. Whatever the truth is, in 1931 Evelyn made her breakthrough by winning the first women’s half-mile sprint handicap and the Sporting Life trophy at the old Stamford Bridge cinder track.
In 1934, Hamilton rode 1,000 miles in 7 days on a Claud Butler bike, which inspired the manufacturer to construct a women’s specific light-weight racing frame named ‘Miss Modern’ a couple of years later. In 1935, Evelyn covered 700 miles from London to John O’Groats in four and a half days. In 1938, she amazed the public with riding 10,000 miles in 100 days.
The same year Hamilton and her husband John (aka Jack) opened a bike shop in London, and it turned out Evelyn had quite a talent for business. Aside from inspiring ‘Miss Modern’, she promoted bicycles from other manufacturers, as well as home trainers for housewives. Nothing as profitable as encouraging women to stay trim and fit, right?
With the outbreak of WWII, things got a bit more tangled. For reasons unknown, Evelyn happened to be in Paris when the German army occupied France. At the time, she allegedly worked in a cafe often visited by Gestapo officers. But that didn’t stop her from joining the French Resistance and secretly transporting the Resistance members across Paris on a tandem. Her bike shop in London became a headquarters of the Resistance militant spy network, as she recalled in post-war interviews. When and how, do you ask, if she spent most of the war in France? Good question! But the answer stays a mystery to all of us.
Evelyn also maintained to have taken an identity of a dead French woman, because her name appeared on the Nazi ‘wanted list’. She claimed to have married and lived with a man named Fernand Maurice Helsen. What happened to her former husband Jack Hamilton? We do not know. But we do know that the mysterious lady died as ‘Evelyn Helsen’, as it appears on both her gravestone and death certificate.
Did Evelyn really manage to shoot a German kidnapper with a miniature pistol hidden in her bun, and escape back to the UK? And what about her son being captured by the Germans and never seen again? And finally, should we call Evelyn a war hero?
It seems we shall never be able to tell fiction from facts. Hamilton was supposedly awarded the Cross of Lorraine, a reward given to French war heroes. There are no records of that event, but Evelyn surely used the symbol on the frame badges of her bicycles named Lorraine Cycles.
In 1947, Evelyn got back on her bike with the intention of breaking her own record, and once again, with covering 12,000 miles in 100 days, she succeeded. Simply to prove that women can keep up with men. In the ’60s she quit her long-distance cycling career and became the President of the Women’s Cycle Racing Association.
Evelyn died in 2005 aged 99. Let’s wrap up the tale by saying she was one fascinating lady, leaving the world as someone who still sparks our curiosity.